Barbara Villiers: History of Monetary Crimes - Alexander Del Mar

III. The Coining Mill and Tress.

THE quantity of silver produced by the mines of Potosi was so ample that when turned into money it promised to promote new currents of trade, new inventions and new enterprises and achievements of every description. European States had long been destitute of an adequate Measure of Value. There were but few gold coins in circulation. The silver coins were mostly degraded. The monetary issues were chiefly billon and copper coins, whose value depended largely upon government credit, which at that period was much strained.

The entire monetary circulation of Europe at the period of the Discovery of America did not exceed per capita. Agriculture was degraded to the lowest condition; the peasantry were reduced to the level of animals; commerce and private credit had folded their wings and shrunk into the Italian ports; whilst manufactures, beyond a few homespun fabrics, had practically no existence. The desire to immediately convert the new supplies of silver into money was irresistible.

By the hammer process an ordinary workman could not turn out more than forty or fifty well finished silver coins per diem and a good workman not more than a hundred. To coin the product of Potosi would have required an army of moneyers as numerous as those, whose revolt had cost the Emperor Aurelian 7000 troops to suppress. Something more expeditious was wanted than the old steel die, hammer and file. That something, in the shape of a laminating mill and screw coining press, the "balancier," was invented in Italy about the year 1547. It appeared in Spain in the year 1548. In 1550 some such a machine made its appearance in France, a country which possessed no Potosi and produced no silver. On March 3, 1553 a coin mill, the "lamanoir," was patented by Aubry Olivier. Another one was claimed as an invention of Antoine Brucher. In July, 1553, the King, Henry II., of France, authorized the erection of a screw press and laminating mill with which to coin silver testoons, or shillings. In March, 1554, the first coins, in France, were made by the new process. In 1561 the mill-and-press was introduced by Nicholas Briot into England. In 1685 Castaign invented a device to stamp the edges of coins, and succeeded in turning out as many as twenty thousand coins a day by the new process.

There are still extant some machine-made or "milled" coins of Elizabeth, struck, according to Haydn, in the year 1562. Snelling fixes the date of this event in 1576, but this seems to be too late; for, according to Martin Folkes, Phillip Mastrelle, a Frenchman, probably he who had brought the newest machine from France, was in 1569 detected in making coins on his own account, and for this offense he was executed; a circumstance that put an end, for a time, to the fabrication of coins by machinery in England. On the other hand, Blackie's Popular Encyclopedia states that Mastrelle's press was not abandoned until 1572. The true date of Mastrelle's death may possibly be supplied by Fenelon, who states that in September, 1574, certain Germans, Hollanders and Frenchmen, in England, were detected in forging a million crowns of the coins of France, Spain Flanders; and that this was done with the connivance of some of Elizabeth's ministers.

So vast a number of broad pieces would hardly have been attempted to be struck by hand; and since Mastrelle, so far as is known, possessed the only complete coining machinery in England, it seems more than likely, especially when regard is had for Mr. Folkes' statement, that Fenelon's account is correct and Mastrelle was either the instigator or chief instrument of these nefarious transactions. Similar offenses were perpetrated in France. The Marquis de Tavannes assures us that Salcede, who was executed in 1582, had grown rich from the profits of what he called forgery, but what, according to the Metallic school was really only justifiable private coinage; because the forged coins contained more silver than the genuine. It is evident that the mill-and-press was already working a revolution in the monetary systems of the world. So far as it operated to discourage the further issuance of debased coins, like those, for example, of Edward VI. Its influence was admittedly beneficial. But might it not also operate to destroy money altogether, by facilitating its reduction to the degraded level and value of the metal of which it was made? We shall see.

It has been suggested by Blackie's Pop. Encyclo., (art. "Mint,") that Mastrelle's mill-and-press was abandoned in England in 1572, on account of the superior cheapness of fabricating coins by hand! A similar reason is advanced by Renier Chalon for the abandonment of the mill-and-press in France, by Henry III., in September, 1585. Aside from the improbability of such alleged cheapness, the executions of Mastrelle and Salcede sufficiently prove that the renunciation of the new machine had a graver object. This was to limit the coinage and discourage counterfeiting. But though it was comparatively easy to detect and drive forgers out of the well policed States of Europe, it was not so easy to discover and punish them in America. Counterfeit silver coins were reported in circulation and are mentioned in the Spanish-American monetary laws of 1535, 1565 and 1595, which contain injunctions to the Spanish viceroys to trace and punish the offenders.

In 1603 the billon coins of Phillip III. in Spain, like those of Henry VIII. and Edward VI. in England, were suddenly doubled in value by royal proclamation. The Spanish decree produced great distress and confusion. It was followed in Spain by a virtual suspension of payments in gold or silver coins and a premium on the latter of 40 percent, in billon money. Worse than all, this ill-advised measure afforded not merely encouragement but protection to the Spanish-American counterfeiters of silver coins; for even the officers of government were indisposed to interfere with men who offered to them, in exchange for the debased coins of the Crown, the superior products of forgery. The consequence was that much of the newly-mined silver was enabled to avoid the production tax of a fifth (the Quinto), the forgers buying the metal secretly from the miners and working it into well-made coins of high standard, most of which found their way direct from America to the Orient, and some even to Europe. When the news of these events reached Spain the Crown took alarm; and for a ready way out of the many difficulties which beset the subject, it plunged into a new one, far worse than all the others: in 1608 it authorized its viceroys in America to freely coin all tax-paid silver. This was practically private and unlimited coinage; it also implied unlimited freedom to export and melt.

Between the first and third quarters of the 17th century the new coining process passed through many experimental and probationary stages. In 1617 one Balancier is said to have invented an improved mill-and-screw. In 1625 Nicholas Briot invented an improved machine, and in 1631 he was invited or permitted by the Royal Mint of England to manufacture coins in the Tower of London by means of the new mill-and-screw; several issues of Charles I. affording evidence of the fact. But owing to some misunderstanding, or perhaps by reason of the patronage which Louis XIII. extended to the coining press and the more permanent, profitable, or congenial employment which awaited Briot in his own country, he returned to it soon afterwards. In December, 1639, Louis XIII., of France, issued an edict which authorized the manufacture of coins in the Royal Mint by the new process. In March, 1640, he went still further: he forbade the manufacture of hammered coins, unless the same were finished as evenly and perfectly as those by the mill-and-screw, which, of course, was practically impossible. This encouragement of the new process was evidently offered as a remedy for the evil effects of that picking out and secret melting down of the heavier hammered coins (the crime of billonage) which half a century later produced so much commotion in England and already began to be felt in France. In 1645, third year of Louis XIV., all coinage was forbidden except by the new process, which now became permanently established in France, whereas in England it was still on trial.

In that country political disturbance had for a while postponed definite action on this important subject. In 1651 Pierre Blondeau, a Frenchman, was employed by the government of Oliver Cromwell to strike coins by the mill-and-screw. His work, however, was confined to pattern pieces, which, according to the Penny Cyclopedia, were the first ones upon whose edges a lettering was impressed, as a safeguard against clipping: the serrated edges not appearing until 1663. After some delays Pierre Blondeau in 1659 got to work systematically, but here again political events occurred to interrupt the employment of the new process. In 1660 the Restoration took place; Blondeau was frightened back to his native land; and the coins of Charles II were once more hammered, as of old.

But the time had passed for this ancient process. Milled and pressed coins were being produced in France, Holland and Spanish America, of so much more even weights and such superior workmanship, that England, unless content to let the Eastern trade slip into the hands of its neighbors, was compelled to adopt the new process, even though it became necessary to employ foreign artists to superintend the work. Accordingly Pierre Blondeau was sent for again; and the year 1662 saw him re-employed at the Tower of London, turning out with mill-and-screw those handsome coins upon which the restored but improvident Charles had already granted a mortgage to his beautiful Barbara Villiers. The superior results of machine coining are seen by a single glance at the statistics of the mint. From the Restoration (in May) to the end of the calendar year 1660, the coinage was only £1,683; in 1661, £23,200; in 1662, when Blondeau's machines were employed, £496,678; and in 1663, £330,507. Here Blondeau seems to have been dismissed, or else the supplies of bullion ran very low, for in the following three or four years the coinage did not average £50,000. Year 1664, £44,333; 1665, £61,722; 1666, £37,144; 1667, £53,106. Whether a French mintner was again employed or not, does not appear; but the increase of the coinage from 1668 onward unmistakenly indicates the permanent establishment of the new process. The year 1668, £124,940; 1669, £44,305; 1670, £143,043; 1671, £119,800; 1672, £268,688; 1673, £313,300.

In the previous chapter mention was made of the ancient statutes, which, in order to prevent any alteration in the Measure of Value, prohibited the melting down or exportation of the National coins. Down to Edward III. the statutes against melting related only to silver pennies, half-pennies and farthings; and from Edward III. to Richard II. only to pennies and their fractions and to groats and half-groats, the largest silver coins of the period. After Richard II. there was no new statute against melting, although there were several against exportation. The goldsmiths, bankers and foreign merchants of London, always conspicuous for their unselfish patriotism and devotion to the public interest, construed these statutes so literally as to deem themselves at liberty to melt down all the broad pieces of Cromwell and the two Charleses, which had been so carefully minted by Briot and Blondeau; and to export the metal thus obtained to the Orient. A penal statute in 1662 was enacted to stop this practice, but it was followed so closely by the opposite legislation of 1663 and 1666, presently to be described, that it had no practical result.

As Mr. Davis, a member of Parliament in Elizabeth's reign, had said in reference to the same practice of exportation: "The exchange is governed by brokers and as it pleaseth them, the exchange must rise and fall"; which was as true in the reign of Charles as of Elizabeth; and is as true of the United States to-day as it was of England in the reign of Charles.